Munster v Leicester: When two European titans go to war

Similarities between two clubs help intensify one of Europe’s great traditional rivalries

Munster players contemplate their second Heineken Cup final defeat in three seasons as Leicester’s Neil Back celebrates at the end of the 2002 final at the Millennium Stadium. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

Munster players contemplate their second Heineken Cup final defeat in three seasons as Leicester’s Neil Back celebrates at the end of the 2002 final at the Millennium Stadium. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

 

Two titans collide again. Were Munster to look across the water for a mirror image of themselves it would probably be Leicester, and vice versa. These two heavyweights and two-time winners of the European Cup may not have lifted the trophy for a while now, but they each boast a rich tradition as standard-bearers of Irish and English club rugby.

They each pride themselves on the potency of their forward play and are backed by sizeable and passionate support from their respective communities, long since establishing Thomond Park and Welford Road as citadels of the European game.

Indeed, as a consequence of their successes, they each effectively outgrew Thomond Park and Welford Road, each beginning extensive redevelopment of their old homes in 2008 – Thomond’s capacity increasing from 13,200 to 25,630, and Welford Road from 17,500 to almost 26,000.

Hence when they met in 2003 at Welford Road, and at both grounds in the pool stages of 2006-07, the attendances varied between 13,000 and 17,000, whereas when they met each other back to back at this same juncture last season, the attendances were both around the 22,000 mark.

Munster have won 64 of their 68 home matches in Europe’s premier competition, and yet curiously of their three defeats at Thomond Park, Leicester have inflicted two of them and are thus unbeaten at the Limerick ground.

Similarly, while Leicester have lost only two of their last 33 matches in the European Champions Cup at Welford Road – and in October avenged last season’s quarter-final defeat at home to Racing Metro – prior to that Munster had also become the only team to register two away wins at their midlands fortress.

“It’s bizarre,” admits David Wallace. “I suppose the two teams are used to playing in that environment and don’t fear it as much. They know that sometimes it can be a psychological play on the opposition more so than an actual real strength for the home team.”  

Biggest game in Europe

Time was when it was simply the biggest game in Europe, beginning as it did with the final in 2002 at the Millennium Stadium. “We’d been to the final in 2000, while they had won it the previous year [2001], and Leicester would have always have been there or thereabouts,” says Wallace, who also recalls Anthony Horgan withdrawing the day before the game with a broken finger after an innocuous and light-hearted exchange of high fives in the captain’s run.

“We were somewhat confident going into the game. We weren’t over-awed by it, but we knew what a good team Leicester were. Maybe we under-valued ourselves a bit, and we didn’t play to our maximum. But they were a very good team as well at the time and there was a feeling that we were beaten by the better team on the day. Although if we had played to our potential we could have won.

“They had us under pressure in stages of the game. Geordan Murphy scored a very good try, and we conceded a soft Austin Healy try, and that was a kind of killer blow for us.”

That final is, of course, chiefly remembered for Neil Back dislodging the ball from Peter Stringer’s hands as he was about to feed a prime attacking Munster scrum in virtually the last play of the game; aka the Hand of Back.

“I realised immediately when the ball didn’t come back on my side,” Frankie Sheahan recalled on Newstalk during the week. “And I’ll be honest with you, it was such a relief to hear it was something like that as opposed to me being the cause of this [scrum] not actually happening, because I didn’t see the hand and it was only after that I realised what had happened.”

“I blame Stringer,” quipped Sheahan. “He should have held the ball. He should have attacked yer man or done something. But all this talk about cynical stuff, I mean in the name of God, if the Claw [Peter Clohessy] had done that for us we’d have been delighted with him.

 “There’s been so much talk about ‘oh, they were cynical, they were cynical.’ Any opportunity we got to get an advantage, whether it was running a lazy line to slow a guy down behind, whether it was collapsing a scrum because you were uncomfortable with it, whether it was taking a guy out harder than you should be taking him out or hitting him in a place you shouldn’t have, this is what you do.

Roll it along the ground

“In Thomond Park you’d have the ball boys drying the balls and if they gave it to me I’d roll it along the ground so it would be wet by the time the other hooker got it. Was that cynical? Yes. Do I regret it? Absolutely not. I’d do it again in the morning. For what Neil Back did people were gutted, but would we have scored? I don’t know. Did we deserve to win it? I don’t know.”

 Wallace concurs. “I don’t think I actually saw it at the time, even though my head was actually pretty close to the incident,” he says, chuckling. “I was just down and pushing and next thing we’d turned over the ball. Yes, it was a fantastic opportunity. It was in the middle of their 22. We’d options left and right. But there was no guarantee of the try. It wasn’t like they were going to lie down and let us waltz in.

“Look, he got away with it, and you’ve got to admire his bravery for trying it. In all the years I played subsequently I don’t think I would have tried it because I know I would have got caught. He was a master of getting away with things and he got away with it, and it fed the old Munster chip on the shoulder,” says Wallace, who also recalled the wrongly disallowed John O’Neill try against Stade Francais in the semi-final in 2001, the last season before the introduction of TMOs, but for which Leicester and Munster would have met in successive finals.

Losing two finals also made Munster hungrier in their pursuit of the holy grail. “It made us a hungrier team. In the 2006 final, I don’t think we were ever going to lose that game. We just couldn’t come away with three [final] losses. Going through that pain definitely made us stronger.”

Wallace missed out on the 2003 quarter-final at Welford Road (and much of that season) due to shoulder reconstruction, and watched it at home on TV. “Everyone had kind of written us off, but it was just an unbelievable win,” says Wallace of a 20-7 win which ended Leicester’s two-year reign as champions.

When they were drawn together in the pool stages of the 2006-07 season, Munster travelled to Welford Road as champions on the opening weekend. O’Gara had kicked up a media storm by maintaining that the Premiership was over-rated and that Irish players were just as good as English players. He backed up his words too with the last-minute penalty from half-way to seal a 21-19 win.

Grievance

“That was the game that Nigel Owens penalised Shane Jennings an extra 10 metres for pushing the ball away with his hand after the whistle but it was a very marginal call,” is former Tiger Leo Cullen’s first recollection of that match, still carrying a grievance. “We didn’t start well, and I remember Donnacha [O’Callaghan] scoring a try from about 40 or 50 metres out, but we had almost done enough to win the game until that penalty by ‘Rog’.”   

Wallace laughs again when observing: “Rog was possibly right but you don’t say it in those circumstances. He apologised to the players before and after, but it was great the way he got the final penalty. It was a really tough kick, really soggy underfoot. I don’t know how he kicked it. He showed his character that day. He didn’t even celebrate, in an act of contrition or whatever.”

When it came to the rematch on the final weekend of the pool stages, Munster had already qualified but a needed a win for a home quarter-final, and Wallace admits that had taken the edge off Munster’s performance.

“Maybe against another team we might have got away with it, but not against the team that Leicester had. I just remember [Alesana] Tuilagi that day. He was phenomenal. Anything that came down his path, he just smashed them. They were far more physical than us, probably hungrier than us.”

Wallace recalls: “Pat Howard spoke about that game in ’07 as being ‘just a field’. Teams come and say that a lot, but with Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings they probably had a bit more understanding of it, and maybe being Leinster lads they had a certain bit extra in them, because they certainly performed that day.

“Jenno got me a ‘beaut’ that day off a scrum, which kind of led to a try actually. They had a scrum just outside our 22, and they had an 8-9 pick-and-go. Jenno just pivoted around as Martin Corry was breaking and swung his foot out just as I was breaking off. He tripped me just enough to take half a pace off me and they got behind us, and that led to a try two or three phases later. In fairness to him, he [Jennings] got me good,” says Wallace, laughing. “A master of the dark arts.”

“We played very well that day,” says Cullen of Leicester’s collective performance. “Geordie Murphy scored a good try and Ian Humphreys controlled the game and played to the conditions, putting us in the right areas. We played into a fierce wind in the first half but our scrum was very strong and we led 8-6. Whenever Munster came at us in the second half, once they turned over the ball all we had to do was kick the ball and the wind would put them back way downfield.

Waiting for us

The ramifications were significant, with Leicester earning a home quarter-final en route to the final. “Sadly we lost to Wasps in the final, in what was my final game with Leicester,” recalls Cullen. “We had beaten them at Welford Road in the last game of the league and then won the Premiership semi-final and final, whereas they were fresher and were waiting for us in the final.”

For their part, Munster were condemned to a quarter-final away to the Scarlets, where their crown slipped. “I remember we wore those bloody grey jerseys,” says Wallace. “We didn’t perform and they played to their maximum. It was probably one of the most annoying performances for me. We just didn’t perform.”

Munster would reclaim their crown in 2008, and wouldn’t meet Leicester again until last season’s pool stages. Wallace was at both games.

“You could see lots of really good things about Munster, but I think defence had been a problem all year. We had a low tackle focus and any time Leicester got the ball, they’d get tackled but seemed to be getting over the gainline so easily. They got one try over five or six phases from 40 metres out. It just seemed to easy.

“It’s definitely a different prospect with Munster’s defence this year. They seem to be playing with so much confidence in that area, as well as attack. There’s no doubt Leicester are a talented squad. They’re obviously big rivals of ours and they’re going to be up for the game as well. They’ve won five on the bounce, so they’re coming in with a lot of momentum, as are we, but I think we’ll be a much different prospect this season, and those two losses last season will help motivation. Munster will be out for revenge and that’s always a very strong psychological tool.”

 And woe betide Munster losing three out of three to Leicester at Thomond Park.

A HISTORY OF MUNSTER V LEICESTER

25 May 2002 – Heineken Cup final: Leicester 15 Munster 9, Millennium Stadium

Such was the sea of red of green in the 76,400 that there was hardly a neutral in the ground. Three Ronan O’Gara penalties kept Munster in touch as tries by Geordan Murphy and Austin Healey enabled Leicester to lead most of the way, before the introduction of Mike Mullins off the bench inspired a late Munster rally. Cue the infamous Hand of Back, enabling Martin Johnson to become the first captain to lift the trophy in successive seasons.

13 April 2003 – Heineken Cup quarter-final: Leicester 7 Munster 20, Welford Road

 Still nursing that ‘chip’ from the previous year’s final, Munster led 13-7 with five minutes remaining, with Ronan O’Gara scoring all their points including a try, when Peter Stringer, fittingly, rounded a superb move to score in front of the travelling Red Army and end Leicester’s two-year reign.

22 October, 2006 – Heineken Cup pool stages: Leicester 19 Munster 21, Welford Road

 Munster, now the champions, roared into a 15-6 interval lead thanks to a stunning 40-metre gallop by Donnacha O’Callaghan and a close-range finish, before the Tigers came roaring back. O’Gara, having hogged the headlines all week, sealed the win with a dramatic 52-metre penalty in the last minute.

20 January, 2007 – Heineken Cup pool stages: Munster 6 Leicester 13, Thomond Park 

The last game at Thomond Park before it was closed down for its extensive re-development, a more motivated Leicester had to win to stay alive, whereas Munster had already qualified. The Leicester pack helped carve an 8-6 interval lead despite playing into a strong wind, and Pat Howard’s clever gameplan used Ian Humphreys’ kicking game with the wind in the second-half, while hiding him on the wing for defensive duties.

12 December 2015 – European Champions Cup pool stages: Munster 19 Leicester 31, Thomond Park

Munster huffed and puffed, and did plenty well, but a costly defensive lineout that gifted a try to Tigers lock James Fitzgerald gave the home side an 18-6 interval lead, and compounded by missed kicks, that proved insurmountable.

20 December 2015 – European Champions Cup pool stages: Leicester 17 Munster 6, Welford Road

Again Munster had plenty of the game and chances, but after more missed kicks and lost try-scoring opportunities – a James Cronin try being over-ruled for a forward pass and Leicester stifling an 80-metre break by Francis Saili – the contest was settled by Vereniki Gonivea’s 65th-minute try. The defeat all but condemned Munster to a pool exit.

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